And the Past Continues to Walk our Streets …

Over the last week, there’s been much written and spoken about the riots that ensued on the 12th of July in Ardoyne. There has been a cacophony of condemnations, justifications, denunciations and declarations.

But is any one listening?

In a post yesterday on the Compromise after Conflict blog, Francis Teeney reminded us that if you look at the cold, hard numbers, not that many people in Northern Ireland actually seem to care about parading. He writes:

“… less than half of 1% of the population are devoutly interested enough in parading to take to 500 yards of road to protest about it and 99.5% of the population spread over a land mass of 5,456 square miles do not bother.”

With the hint today that “unionism is heading towards a Drumcree-style approach at Ardoyne,” implying the prospect of a long, drawn-out process of protest, one wonders if this is the best strategy to convince a wider populace that at best (as Teeney claims) doesn’t care and at worst blames the Orange Order and its parades for the disturbances.

A Drumcree-style approach (and where did that get the Orange Order?) would seem only to confirm the worst stereotypes of the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (PUL) community, unfortunately perpetrated by Brian John Spencer on Eamonn Mallie’s normally more constructive blog. In a sweeping post that condemns, dehumanizes and demonizes, Spencer writes:

“I’ve written before that this is where the battle line will lie in the coming Century: between the tolerant and plural people of modernity (Protestant and Catholic) and the thug-merchants of reaction and the past (Protestant and Catholic).

… In Northern Ireland we have a political and street-thug class wedded to the past. Both live in a world where moderation is anathema; they’re a doctrinal people in which doctrine is eternally true and cannot be changed.

The majority of Northern Ireland has got past the messianic absolutism and the barbarism that comes with it – only a select and minority set on the street and in government haven’t.

When are we going to stand up, say a clear and confident “No!” and make our barbaric inheritance history?”

Like Spencer, I don’t want the images of Northern Ireland that have been beamed around the world this week to define the place where I live. And I agree that the vast majority of people here have abdicated responsibility for transforming our divided society. To our great detriment the contributions they could make to civic and political life have been lost through disillusionment and a political system deliberately structured along sectarian lines that reward the political parties that take the most ‘extreme’ positions.

But I don’t think it helps to reduce the disturbances around the 12th to a problem of a ‘thug class’ (both on the streets and in Stormont). It only sets up an enlightened ‘modern’ US versus a stunted ‘pre-modern’ THEM. This not only simplifies the situation but – much like the way the Orange Order and some church and political figures have evaded responsibility for inciting violence – gets ‘US’ off the hook for confronting the sectarianism that permeates all aspects of Northern Irish society.

Name-calling and demonization also allow ‘US’ to ignore the grievances that form the all-important backdrop and context for the riots and for the past year’s flag protests, including the frustration in some PUL communities of being left behind economically and educationally, and left behind in a peace process in which it is perceived that the Historical Enquires Team is targeting loyalists while the violence of the ‘other side’ seems to have been rewarded or ignored.

(Even if you do not agree these grievances are valid, that doesn’t mean you can’t listen to what those who have them, have to say.)

Spencer also writes that a ‘thug class’ remains ‘wedded to the past.” Buried within that is an insight that I think deserves a more nuanced unpacking.

In the years since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland has steadfastly refused to construct a comprehensive public policy for ‘dealing with the past’ which might include (judging from such processes in other contexts and the largely ignored recommendations of the Eames-Bradley Report):

  • meaningful public recognition of the suffering of victims,
  • apologies,
  • story-telling,
  • information recovery,
  • respectful conversations about how we will choose to remember the violence,
  • opportunities for private and public forgiveness,
  • stories of hope.

In a discussion on Sunday Sequence after the 12th, Brian Rowan intimated that the 12th riots and flag protests are symptomatic of the wider problems that we have tried to sweep under the carpet since the Agreement. He called for international mediators to facilitate dialogues on particular issues and mentioned, albeit in passing, that we still haven’t dealt with the past systematically.

And that’s part of the reason why the Past keeps walking our streets.

Berating people to ‘get with the programme’ and demanding they join ‘US’ in a modern, cosmopolitan Northern Ireland, won’t keep the Past from walking our streets.

Pointing out that people don’t care about parades and watching as they retreat to the suburbs and the garden centres, won’t keep the Past from walking our streets.

There’s a future for Northern Ireland in which the Orange Order continues to walk the streets, and does so in a way that does not stir up the violence and sectarianism of the Past.

We won’t get there as ‘US’ and ‘THEM.’ We will have to walk there together.



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